|Ludwig van Beethoven|
That's pretty much it.
Along the way, he broke new ground in symphonies, string quartet and piano music. His vast output resounds with a fierce, humanist spirit, a love of nature, and (as expressed in the words of the Ninth Symphony) a fierce desire for universal brotherhood.
Here's a few of the essential works of Beethoven to get you started. As always, the hyperlinks go to recommended recordings.
Piano Sonata No. 21 "Waldstein"
It's hard to pick one among Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas, and this writer will admit that the 'Waldstein' is a personal favorite. The galloping first movement is decked with difficult runs and trills. The slow central movement leads into the finale, with a searching theme of great beauty. A good place to start exploring the piano works. And if that doesn't work, try the 'Pathetique', the 'Appasionata' and the 'Moonlight' sonatas. No, they don't all have cool nicknames.
Symphony No. 5 in c minor
With its four hammered opening notes, the beginning of the Fifth has become a cliché. But what's amazing is that the entire symphony, all four movements, are constructed based on that theme. This style of musical development paved the way for the 'motivic' music of Wagner and Strauss.
When you write only one opera in your career, make it Fidelio. Although this work had a complex, tortured birth (and went through four different versions and a title change) the story of a wife who cross-dresses and poses as a prison guard in order to rescue her wrongfully jailed husband has particular resonance today. Highlights include the quartet 'Mir est so wunderbar' and the Prisoners' Chorus: 'O welche lust.'
String Quartet No. 8 in e minor ("Razumovsky No. 2")
This is one of the more accessible string quartets, part of a set which Beethoven dedicated to his benefactor, a Russian prince. Its final movement incorporates the 'Hymn to the Tsar', a Russian melody that also shows up in the Grand Coronation Scene from Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov.
Symphony No. 9 in d minor
Written toward the very end of his life, and premiered when the composer was suffering from total deafness, the Ninth Symphony was the first work to add voice to the symphony's traditional four-movement structure. Its climactic movement, a setting of the poet Schiller's "Ode to Joy" is one of the most popular melodies ever written. But it's the development of that theme to celestial heights (including a brain-melting double fugue for chorus and orchestra) that makes the Ninth a fitting climax to Beethoven's career.